Failing students get federal aid

In California’s Central Valley, 10 percent of Pell Grants went to students who lost aid eligibility for dropping out, failing their classes or earning low grades, reports the Fresno Bee. As many as 25 percent of Pell recipients at community colleges fail to make “satisfactory academic progress” in a typical semester.

Low-income students get up to $5,500 in college aid; whatever isn’t needed for tuition goes to the student for living expenses.  The “refund” makes it possible for low-income adults to pay a babysitter, buy gas for the car, pay for books and survive while they try to improve their futures. But it also provides an incentive to enroll at a low-cost community college — California’s are the cheapest in the nation — for the money.

Pell recipients must show academic progress but have nine years to earn a certificate or degree. While students who drop out mid-term or get all F’s are supposed to repay the grant, the U.S. Education Department doesn’t track how much is repaid, the Bee reports. Nor does the department know how many aid recipients fail their classes.

Only 4 percent of Pell recipients at Fresno State fail to make satisfactory academic progress. The numbers are much higher for community college students.

In the spring 2010 semester at Fresno City College — the latest semester for which figures were available — about one-fourth of the students who won Pell Grants got warning letters for failing to maintain a C-minus average, dropping too many classes or dropping out.

. . . At Reedley College and the State Center Community College District’s centers in northeast Fresno, Madera and Oakhurst, 1,140 students — one-fourth of the Pell Grant recipients — got warning letters in spring 2010 for unsatisfactory academic progress.

. . .  In the fall 2010 semester at College of the Sequoias, nearly one-quarter of students on financial aid, including Pell Grants, got warning letters.

West Hills Community College District’s Coalinga and Lemoore colleges sent warning letters to nearly 11% of Pell Grant recipients in the spring 2010 semester, but only 5% in the fall 2010 semester.

Failing students should lose eligibility for aid after one semester, John Cummings, Reedley College’s vice president for admissions and records, told the Bee. Currently, students can fail for two semesters before losing the right to more money; many successfully appeal for a third semester of aid.

Pell recipients who earn poor grades may be doing their best. But college officials suspect fraud when aid recipients fail all their classes or withdraw a few weeks into the term after the refund checks go out.

“It’s happening in every state,” says Laurie Wolf, dean of student services at Des Moines Area Community College. Aid cheats “pick low-cost colleges” to maximize the refund. They also take out student loans they’ll never repay.

Some colleges have been granting two, three or four aid extensions to failing students who appeal the aid cut-off, Wolf says. That will change July 1, when new Education Department rules go into effect requiring colleges to cut off aid after a third semester of failure with no more appeals.

The appeals limit is long overdue, Benita Vega, financial aid administrator at College of the Sequoias, told the Bee.

“It’s the first time in 34 years that the government has come in and said, ‘We need to do something,’ ” Vega said.

At Louisiana’s low-cost technical colleges, 20 percent of Pell Grant recipients fail all their classes or withdraw in mid-term, after they receive the refund. “They’re enrolling not to get an education but to get a check,” says Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College system. Because tuition takes only 21 percent of the grant, a full-time student may get as much as $2,500 each semester in cash.

House Speaker Joel Robideaux has introduced a bill in the new legislative session that would allow the technical colleges to raise tuition to capture more of the Pell Grant, reducing the incentive for people to enroll for the refund.